Houston’s Wild Oats Chef Chris Shepherd Explores Texas Cuisine – Robb Report

Chef Nick Fine has a dream for his new Houston Wild Oats spot: one day, he hopes, a customer will order a shot for everyone in the restaurant. Not a shot of whiskey, ie a shot of chili, which is a real menu option.

“Wouldn’t it be funny if someone was like, ‘one round for the whole bar!'” he said with a laugh. “We have this so you can walk in and taste the chili instead of having to commit to an entire bowl.”

Portion size isn’t the only thing Fine has fun with. wild oatsa new project of by Chris Shepherd Belly hospitality which opened on Thursday, February 10 at the Houston Farmers Market. Fine remixes essential Texas dishes and ingredients to tell stories about the Lone Star State that have never been heard before. Wild Oats, he hopes, will do for Texas cuisine what Underbelly did for Houston.

“Texas food is easy to stereotype, and this restaurant aims to challenge those stereotypes and show the underside of our state — the ingredients, people and cultures that make it one of the most diverse in the country,” said Fine. “My hope with this restaurant is to showcase Texas cuisine, from Gulf Coast shrimp to quail found in the Panhandle and everything in between.”

Chef and partner Nick Fine.

Photo: Courtesy Claudia Casbarian

Fine, who is also the culinary director of Underbelly Hospitality, is uniquely qualified to tell these stories. He grew up in Texas, then traveled the country to hone his culinary skills, including stints at Dean Fearing’s Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, Oak, and Acorn in Boulder, Col. and Veritas in New York. He returned to Houston in 2015.

“I’ve moved about 35 times in my life, but Texas has always called me back,” he said. “So a lot of these dishes on this opening menu are things that resonate with me and come out of my experiences as a Texan. And I want to tell the story of a part of the Texas food scene that no one really knows.

For example, Wild Oats quail poppers are inspired by a dish Fine and her father used to make together when dove hunting. The bird is stuffed with jalapeños, wrapped in bacon and served with whipped cream cheese. And the pork steak is named after Tootsie Tomanetz, the famed pitmaster at Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, Texas, whose pork steak, Fine says, rivals his brisket. Wild Oats even had a kids’ menu with staples like corn dogs and tater tots; coloring sheets for children feature a portrait of Willie Nelson.

Other dishes are influenced by the cultures that make up Texas, such as Mexican, German, Czech, and Vietnamese. Wild Oats redfish is served with tomatillo chow chow (pickled condiment), pork knuckle comes with spätzle, crispy vegetables are mixed with mole, fajitas are made with short ribs and Campechana (shrimp cocktail) is enriched with nam jim (chili, coriander, fish sauce, palm sugar).

Wagyu chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes, green beans and jalapeño bacon sauce.

Wagyu chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes, green beans and jalapeño bacon sauce.

Photo: Courtesy Claudia Casbarian

“It’s the first time I’ve really focused on the German and Czech influences in our state,” Shepherd said. “Being able to explore South Texas and West Texas to work with Mexican ingredients – we didn’t have a strong Mexican focus at Underbelly, and it was really fun to work with ingredients like different styles of mole, dried peppers, tomatillos. You know I love deep diving!

The restaurant’s drink menu features Texas wines and cocktails like margaritas and palomas. The 180-seat space — split across a main dining room, private dining room, and patio — is “Hill Country chic,” as Fine calls it. Patterned linoleum flooring, Stetson hats and white Texas limestone are used throughout the design.

Even Austin-based barbecue master Aaron Franklin stepped in to help with Wild Oats. He and his team at Franklin Barbecue Pits, friends of Shepherd and Fine, volunteered to design the restaurant’s hot grill. It’s modular, so the pieces can be moved easily to allow grilling over an open flame (as they do in West Texas), slow roasting over coals (as they do in Central Texas ) or smoking, Franklin’s specialty.

Houston Wild Oats Dining Room

Inside Wild Oats at the Houston Farmers Market.

Photo: Courtesy Claudia Casbarian

As they turned to central Texas for their grill, Fine and his team seek out ingredients closer to home and take advantage of their location inside the Houston Farmers’ Market. They source their produce from local ranchers and farmers, many of whom have stalls in the recently revamped historic 18-acre market.

“This market has always been one of the most iconic neighborhoods in the city,” Shepherd said. “Houston Farmers Market to me is Texas – the vendors, the produce, the local butcher next door that provides us with a lot of our meat. It’s such synergy and a dream come true. To open something here after it’s been thoughtfully and sustainably revamped, I had to jump on it.

Comments are closed.